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Use Grants to Supplement, Not to Supplant
Use Grants to Supplement, Not to Supplant

In grant-speak, “supplementing” means adding to or enhancing something your organization is already doing. A health care center might supplement its current services with a grant to start a mobile clinic. An elementary school tutoring program could use a  grant to expand services to include middle schoolers. 

Grants are a great resource for starting something new or building upon existing work. But, if you’re thinking of using grants to assume costs, you’re now covering with existing funds so that you can reallocate those funds to other purposes, stop right there. That is “supplanting” and in the grants world it’s a great big Don’t Do It

The Supplement, Don’t Supplant rule is an especially hot topic for U.S. Department of Education (DOE) grants and a quick Web search will net scores of articles on that topic. But, the “do not supplant mantra” reaches far beyond DOE. A search of the word “supplant” in the Code of Federal Regulations (ecfg.gov) produces four pages of references. “The ban on supplanting is generally connected with federal funding,” said Barbara Floersch, grants expert and author of You Have a Hammer: Building Grant Proposals for Social Change. “But there are lots of good reasons to avoid it altogether.”

First, you need to understand what supplanting is and what it is not. Suppose the new grant-funded program requires 50% of your assistant director’s time for start-up activities. That work is a direct demand of the new program, different from business-as-usual, and a legitimate grant-related expense. But if your organization is paying a staff member to publish a monthly newsletter, you replace the existing support with funds from the new grant, and you reallocate the original resources for other purposes, that’s supplanting. You were paying for that exact work with existing resources and even though the newsletter may benefit the new program, it is not a new work demand imposed by the grant award. 

“Some definitions of supplanting reference intrigue, underhanded tactics, or plotting,” said Floersch. “Even if you aren’t intentionally engaging in that sort of nefarious behavior, supplanting does represent a lack of transparency with the funder.” 

Grant proposals define and justify the specific funding needed to implement a project. The message is “we need these funds to do this work.” Attempting to define ongoing organizational costs as new grant-imposed demands is not transparent. To fund ongoing operations, you’ll need to write grant proposals for that specific purpose, figure out a workable approach to recovering indirect costs, and undertake fundraising activities to raise flexible discretionary resources.

“Ask for what you need. Don’t play a shell game with grant funding in an attempt to free up and reallocate existing resources,” said Floersch. “Be transparent. Organizational credibility is much more valuable than a short-term funding fix.”